Evangelism Then and Now: The Same Seed, A Different Soil

[This is the most recent “Feeding on the Word” article from our church newsletter]

Over the last few decades Americans have witnessed an unprecedented move away from traditional marriage toward a choose-your-own-adventure approach to sexuality. Influenced by academics, funded by political action groups, and promoted by entertainment personalities, our culture has bought into the notion that sex without limitations is the apex of American freedom.

It should not surprise us that the neighbors we are called to reach have enormous relational baggage. Their sordid stories break our hearts, confound our wisdom, and shut our mouths. Even if we believe—as we ought—that God can save the worst sinner, we see broken people and wonder what to do.

At the same time, large swaths of millennials (those under 35) take exception to the Bible’s views on sex, marriage, and divorce.  Scripture shines a light on sexual sin and says, “Unclean!” As a result, if  ‘Unchurched Charlie’ considers Christianity, his natural inclinations lead him to churches that tread lightly on his sexual sin and present Jesus in a way boosts his self-esteem.

Sadly, there are too many churches so happy for his attendance that they are slow to confront the idolatry of his sexual deviation. On the surface, their ‘grace’ looks Christian, but if we probe deeper it is another symptom of a church compromising the gospel—trading a theological gospel for a psychological one.

We need something better. In our sex-charged culture, we need to learn how to reach those devastated by their deviation from God’s design, and we need to know how engage men and women like Jesus handled the woman at the well (John 4).

Reaching the Really Lost

Current statistics show a decline in baptisms across the SBC. Our denominational leaders question aloud what has become of our evangelistic zeal. Such inquiry is needed.  But I think part of our numeric anxiety misses a key factor in evangelistic success—1953’s pre-evangelized have become 2013’s sexually scandalized.

Pre-evangelism is the work of disseminating truths about God that become precursors to understanding the full gospel. The pre-evangelized person would know intuitively that one God created the universe, that sin deserves judgment, and that men are eternal souls not evolutionary animals.

You can see how the evangelistic efforts that assume these truths will falter when Christian witnesses simply claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Such a statement is true, but it means nothing to the man who cusses Jesus’ name and believes that heaven is that warm feeling he has when he watches pornography.

Can you see why our methods of evangelism must change?

Conversely, what has happened culturally has depleted the church’s confidence in sharing the gospel. Too many Christians leave it up to the trained experts to evangelize. But such a measure only justifies disobedience to the Great Commission and ensures the ongoing impotence of the church’s witness. We must do better and we must be willing to learn how to reach this generation.

Eisenhower’s America: A Pre-Evangelized Nation

To get our bearings, we need to see just how important pre-evangelization was for the evangelistic boom on the twentieth century.

In the 1950’s, broadcast networks regularly aired programs with explicitly Christian messages, schools had prayer, and people were familiar with the contours of the Christian faith and the cast of characters and events in the Bible.

To say it differently, in post-WWII America preachers of the gospel had to do little pre-evangelism.  A body of Christian knowledge permeated the culture and prepared the soil for revivalists and campus ministries.

In that era, Billy Graham could quote the Bible, point to the cross, and sinners repented by the thousands. Like Paul preaching in the synagogues, he brought the gospel to a pre-evangelized nation. Of course, it was God who saved sinners then, just as it is now. But in that period, the nation was well acquainted with biblical truth.

Bill Bright did the same thing. When he started Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951, he devised a method of sharing the gospel known as The Four Spiritual Laws. These little booklets—which hang on a dozen or so verses and which have occupied my car since college—were a wonderful guide to helping someone know how to have a personal relationship with God. But, like Graham’s method of evangelism, Bright’s four-step plan assumed a pre-evangelized audience.

Enter the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the legislation of no-fault divorce, the feminization of the culture, the political support of same sex marriage, the gradual pornification of television, and the rise of other religions, and the cultural soil looks more like cracked hardpan than nutrient-rich loam. It doesn’t take a social scientist to see that somewhere between Eisenhower and Obama, America’s pre-evangelized population shriveled up and blew away.

The Unchanging, Unfailing Gospel

If the soil has changed in the last fifty years, the gospel has not. This our enduring hope! The same Lord that prepared the ground fifty years ago still plants churches, waters believers, and revives nations. Only, in our day, such work requires more than lecturing people to get right with God. Such an approach can only work in a pre-evangelized nation—something that went out of fashion with cassette tapes.

Christians need a new way to proclaim the unchanging message of the gospel, and this month, we will consider how each of us can learn how to share the gospel with people who are suffering from the debilitating effects of unstrained sex. I hope you will join us.

We live at a critical juncture in history, and God has given you and I a message that has power to change the world, one person at a time. This is what it did in Corinth, and I pray this is what it will do in Seymour.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss